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Catholic Education

Step in a process of faith initiation


From hazing in a fraternity, to high jinks when a sailor first crosses the equator, to vision quests in native societies, most groups have some initiation or rites of passage, especially for the young. In the Jewish tradition, the bar and bat mitzvah marks the time when a young boy or girl is recognized as an adult. The Jewish child attends classes in Jewish customs, beliefs, history and a little of the Hebrew language, then recites blessings from the Torah, followed by a party.

In the Catholic tradition, the closest thing to an official rite of passage offered to the young is the sacrament of confirmation, probably the most misunderstood of the seven sacraments. The confirmation “identity crisis” comes from two diverse views of its fundamental role. Some see confirmation as a sacrament in which a person becomes “an adult in the church.” Others see it as a sacrament of initiation into the church.

Three of the seven sacraments are named initiation sacraments: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. The church views these sacraments as intricately bound together, even though they are received at different intervals in our lives. With origins in early Christianity, the different ways and means of celebrating these sacraments evolved in the Western church over the centuries. At first, adults initiated into the church received all three sacraments at the same event. Eucharist was considered to be the culmination of the initiation rite. Over time, baptism became associated with infancy; and the other two sacraments were separated to later in the life of the child in order to provide for instruction and formation in the faith.

Outpouring of the Spirit

In the early church the bishop played a central role in these sacraments, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Community membership was small, so the bishop was able to welcome each new member into the faith and served as the minister of the early sacraments. As the church grew, priests began to assist the bishops in pastoral care, and the bishop’s presence began to be reserved for the confirmation part of the initiation. This persists to the present day.

Today in dioceses around the United States the age for administration of the sacrament of confirmation varies. In some places the emphasis is on a desire to return to the original order of the initiation sacraments -- baptism, confirmation, then Eucharist -- thus necessitating confirmation at an early age. In other dioceses the focus is on the child’s faith development over the years. Confirmation validates the youth’s reaching “adulthood.” Age of administration is the middle-teen years. In still other areas, the emphasis is on appropriate catechesis and full initiation.

In the accompanying article, Sr. Kieran Sawyer delves into these varying emphases in more detail.

“The diversity of age limits established for reception of confirmation represents a range of solid pastoral judgments all of which are valid and seek to express the living spiritual reality found in the sacraments of initiation,” writes Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl in one of his columns in Columbia, the monthly magazine published by the Knights of Columbus.

At whatever age it is administered, the essence of the sacrament of confirmation remains the same: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the life of a Christian.

Chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles describes how the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria where they laid hands on the new Christians there in order that they receive the Holy Spirit. The laying on of hands together with an anointing with oil became the ritual acts of the sacrament of confirmation. The bishop anoints the forehead with oil and says the words of administration: “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Traditionally, the spiritual gifts of the sacrament are these: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord. The first four are considered intellectual virtues; the latter three are virtues of the will and appetites.

Times of special grace

For the valid reception of confirmation, according to canon law, it is only required that the person to be confirmed be baptized. For licit reception, though, the child must be “suitably instructed, properly disposed and able to renew one’s baptismal promises” (Canon 889.2). The amount and kind of instruction varies widely. Some parishes require more than 100 classes, stretching over several years, before a student qualifies for confirmation.

Some catechists and liturgists contend that sacramental preparation periods are times of special grace and expectation. Others consider the whole faith development of a child to be graced and blessed.

Franciscan Fr. Thomas Richstatter teaches courses in the sacraments at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey, in Indiana. He told NCR: “When I survey other liturgists and catechists, most I think would agree with me that theologically these initiation sacraments have no independent meaning. Rather they are part of the ongoing faith development of a young Christian.” Too often confirmation is used as a carrot to lure the kids into classes, as a sort of graduation ceremony at the end, according to Richstatter. “But Catholic education is a lifelong process and shouldn’t be particularly tied to sacraments.”

For those who are not used to thinking of confirmation, together with baptism and Eucharist, as part of the Christian initiation process, Richstatter offers an analogy:

“What do we do when we’re invited out to eat? First, we take off our old clothes and wash up. Then we dry off and put on our good clothes. Finally we go to the place where we have been invited and we join with our friends to eat, talk and celebrate. These three sacraments have a similar relationship with each other. In baptism, we take off the old sinful person and wash away the original sin. In confirmation we are anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit and filled with the seven gifts. Finally, we are led to the eucharistic banquet.”

Typically in confirmation classes, children get basic Christian education, an orientation toward service, maybe a weekend retreat, said Richstatter. “But all these things should be going on anyway. Also, confirmation is sometimes viewed this way: An infant is baptized but has no awareness of the Catholic faith. In the teen years, the youth, armed with knowledge, can then decide for himself or herself. But you can’t really decide; once you’re baptized, you’re baptized.

“The real completion of Christian initiation is Eucharist,” said Richstatter “With our sins washed away and clothed in the Spirit, we come together to the banquet. And the goal of our spiritual striving is for all of us in the Christian community to be brought to perfection as one. The courage and vision to strive for this ultimate unity are the promise and grace of confirmation.”

Rich Heffern is NCR’s opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002